Big Coffee – It is What it Is (My life in Coffee, part 2)

13 03 2014

Note: Last week, I shared my personal history and love for coffee. This week, I’m sharing about my experience working in a coffee shop. Plenty has been written about coffee baristas hating their jobs and, especially, their customers. For examples of what you are NOT about to read here, check out these links: Why Your Stabucks Barista Hates You, Starbucks Gossip: Starbucks Barista: We’re Not Your Friends. I can’t deny some of it rings true, if hollow and one-dimensional. Because so many have asked, this post offers a glimpse of my experience working for Big Coffee in a licensed store – meaning, I have been trained on the “Big Coffee Way” and attempt to provide that same “Big Coffee” experience, but I am actually employed by another company. 

Black coffee and a Minnesota sandwich cookie from Gigi's. (never mind the missing upper right arm of the state. I took a bite first, photo second!)

Black coffee and a Minnesota sandwich cookie from Gigi’s. (never mind the missing upper right arm of the state. I took a bite first, photo second!)

When I resigned my professional position in higher education and relocated to Minneapolis, my friends and I repeatedly said, “If nothing else, you/I can get a job as a barista!”. This was a nod to my love for coffee and the hours I’d spent in my local coffee hangouts, and an acknowledgement that I wasn’t in any way certain about what the future held. In some ways, it was also the real-life equivalent of Monty Python’s famous line, “And now for something completely different!”. We all knew I had loved my job for years, but was seriously burnt-out and experiencing a deep sense of betrayal – so much so that the thought of continuing my career with a simple move to a different institution was anathema for a time.

At the beginning of my job search, I applied for a variety of professional positions, primarily in nonprofits throughout the Twin Cities. As weeks went by with barely a word from prospective employers, I began to think more seriously about hourly jobs as a means of tiding me over, financially, until the right full-time professional position came along. And that, my friends, is how I began working for Big Coffee.

I remember talking about customer service at my interview. I said, “Its important to read the customer. Some will come in looking for a pleasant exchange or to be recognized/known. Others just want to get their coffee and be on their way. How well you read what they want can make or break their day.” This has proven true. Very few of our customers want to chat at any length, but most are seeking a smile and expect me to ask how they are. In fact, a surprising number of them ask how I am first – and their question is more often than not a genuine one. The only customers who sometimes get on my nerves are the ones who can’t decide but don’t step aside to let the next in line go ahead of them. Ok, they’re not the only ones. As a licensed store, rather than a franchise, there are a few things that don’t work exactly the same way – I am also irritated by customers who get irate and yell at me because the corporate negotiations left these gaps in service. I sympathize, but am powerless, so please stop yelling at me.

I was surprised, as I trained, to learn that Big Coffee actually wants its baristas to be fairly knowledgeable about coffee. There were tastings of different blends with discussion of the flavor notes. There are strict standards for coffee brewing and the length of time a pot is allowed to sit before being replaced. And then there is The Machine: the fully-automated espresso machine which means that the barista never actually pulls a shot – s/he simply pushes a button. The shots are produced with a perfect crema on top. I already possessed a good grasp of steamed milk and the right quality of foam, but this was the first and most time-consuming part of my training.

My co-workers are an interesting lot. I didn’t expect to work with so many people who don’t actually like coffee. One of the difficulties for our store is that, due to not liking coffee, some of our baristas don’t understand the point of the standards for brewing or the time constraints placed on how long a shot of espresso can sit before it is served to the customer. To these baristas, it all tastes terrible anyway, so they cannot tell the difference between old coffee and fresh coffee. The lack of coffee-love also shows in the difficulty some have had in memorizing the recipes. On the other hand, with perhaps occasional lapses, my coworkers display excellent customer service…except for the somewhat high percentage of wrongly made drinks, which we remake with a smile, following the recipe the second time rather than relying on faulty memory.

The store I work at is located in an affluent community. People throughout the Minneapolis area refer to this community in negative terms, suggesting that they are particularly difficult because they carry a sense of entitlement. While I have certainly had a few experiences with customers who fit this stereotype, a much larger percentage of our customers than might typically be the case in other Big Coffee shops, are elderly. By and large, these individuals have manners and use them. Though an older clientele may sometimes slow the pace, it also offers the opportunity to engage with people who truly appreciate the extra assistance as we carry their coffee to the cafe or explain the differences between roasts.

As with all new experiences, working in a Big Coffee shop has been a learning experience. There are things that surprised me, things that bum me out, and things that I truly enjoy. I’d like to share a few in each category:

Things that surprised me:

  • Because we are a licensee rather than a franchise, our corporate owners have decreed that baristas may not accept tips. What surprises me, and warms my heart, is the number of customers genuinely outraged to learn this. (More on this in the “things that bum me out” list.)
  • Customers who know the exact recipe for what they are ordering – helpful on special orders, annoying on regular orders. There are customers who order their drinks made to a specific temperature – how do they determine their optimal temp? I just know I like my coffee very hot – but I am at a loss to quantify that.
  • How many children are allowed to order highly-caffeinated beverages. Yes, there is caffeine in most of the blended drinks.
  • How much I enjoy making caramel macchiatos, even though I would never order one (too sweet for me). These are basically the only coffee order that requires some artistry on my part.
  • How many people throw their money at you or drop it on the counter out of your reach. What is that about?

Things that bummed me out:

  • The Machine. I wanted to be a coffee artist, not a button pusher. The Machine allows consistency and is faster than hand-pulled shots. But. If I compare a Big Coffee Americano with one pulled by my black-and-green-haired barista at The Boiler Room there’s no comparison for taste. The hand-pulled shots win every time. Granted, some of this may also be the brand and roast of the espresso used – but it is also the care and consistency demonstrated by the barista.
  • Working for a licensed store can suck. There are a handful of us at Big Coffee, while all of our other coworkers are Union employees, which creates a glaring pay disparity. When hired, we were told that tips would be allowed – in Minneapolis this translates to hundreds of dollars per month of extra income for baristas. Without tips, what I make working 30 hours a week doesn’t pay for much. Big Coffee benefits such as health care, much lauded in the media, do not apply to us – even down to a cuppa during our work shifts. Official policy is that we must purchase anything we consume (including brewed coffee, despite the fact that we dump pots of it out every 30 minutes), except for testing samples when a new product is rolled out.
  • Schedules are produced on a week-by-week basis, without reference to the previous week’s schedule. This means that I never know in advance what my schedule will be, and I might have worked four days in a row at the end of the last schedule and four at the beginning of this one, making an 8-day week. This prohibits planning as well as doing in my off hours. Volunteer work? No one wants a volunteer who can’t commit to a set time. Job interviews translate to begging others to trade shifts. Time off requests mean that you are penalized those hours that week – it is always assumed you would have been scheduled for an 8-hour shift during that time and those 8 hours are “counted” against your total of 30 or fewer for the week. The upshot is that no one requests time off, resulting in a cut-throat trading free-for-all the minute a new schedule is posted. Health codes require us to call in sick under certain conditions. But no one does, because none of us can afford the lost income.
  • I remember a faculty member in graduate school saying that the higher your earned degree level, the more control and autonomy you would experience in your work life. Altogether, these bummers are teaching me a lot about things I may not have valued as deeply as I ought to have in my previous career.
  • The final bummer I want to share has to do with our elderly customers. Big Coffee is expensive. Every shift there is at least one person who approaches and says that they’d like to “have a treat today”, and asks the price of coffee or a pastry item. When told the price, s/he is crestfallen. Not irritated that it’s expensive, though we get that too. But genuinely, clearly unable to afford a small coffee. We have one woman who comes every day and asks for a sample of brewed coffee. She then sits in the cafe for an hour, nursing that thimbleful of coffee. Technically, this isn’t quite above board. But who is heartless enough to address it with her? It may be an affluent community, but it is clear who is living on a strictly limited income.

Things I enjoy:

  • Working the coffee bar when we’re busy. There’s a pleasure that comes with testing yourself to work fast with accuracy, and still manage to connect with the customers.
  •  I like being assigned to sample products. Many of my co-workers don’t like sampling, but I enjoy this process – a soft sell, answering questions, delighting people by giving them something yummy for free. Its the little things, right?
  • When I first started the job, I was disappointed that it wasn’t a more hip location. One where I might meet interesting artists or writers or…just a more diverse crowd. But as I’ve gotten to know our clientele, I’ve really liked working with the older customers. One customer orders a pour-over or a French Press every day, and every day with enthusiasm instructs us how to make it while also waxing poetic about how good it is compared to what he makes at home. Another older gentleman came in daily when we first opened, and garnered a reputation for being surly, cranky, and unfriendly. A month or so later, he showed up with a woman in tow – his wife who had been ill. He actually smiled, throwing everyone off. He still comes in daily, but with his wife – and the change in his demeanor has endeared him to all of us. There’s a quite elderly woman who has never ordered anything from us, but she is often waiting for her ride for 40 or 50 minutes. When I see her, I get something out of the case to sample. She’s particularly fond of anything chocolate!

There was some speculation, on my part as well as among my friends, whether working at Big Coffee would adversely affect my relationship with, my deep love for, coffee. I can happily report that it has not. Which is not to say that it hasn’t had an impact. For one, if Big Coffee is the only option available, I will go there. But now the idea of voluntarily spending my money and time at Big Coffee is much less agreeable to me. Not because I’m a hater – I’m not. But you know what they say about familiarity…some things are better with more separation. Besides, I’ve always preferred independent and local to chains anyway, and I have not come close to exhausting the coffee shop options here yet!

Some days, I wake up and all I can smell in my little apartment is coffee. I don’t know if it is something I bring home on my work clothes, in my nostrils, or if it is a remnant of the last pot I made in my galley kitchen. It doesn’t really matter which it is. I inhale deeply and think, “Hmmm. Time to make some coffee.”

The coffee bar at The Boiler Room.

The coffee bar at The Boiler Room.

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One response

13 03 2014
Jack Hanson

Fantastic Part 2, Jeni. Loved it like I did part 1!!!

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